Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Bah, Humbug

By Leonard Gill

Holidays on Ice By David Sedaris, Little, Brown, 123 pp., $14.95

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  In this glorious season of giving, this year’s gift that keeps on giving is brought to you by the satirist-of-the-moment, David Sedaris. The repackaging job is called Holidays on Ice. Three of the book’s six pieces have appeared in the author’s previous collections, Barrel Fever and Naked. All of them are tied one way or another to Christmas. And all of them take a very dim view of the holidays – and human nature. Pint-sized and priced to sell, the book, however, does make a good stocking-stuffer, if only to say “stuff it” to false charity and false cheer this time of year.

Holidays on Ice opens with the openly autobiographical “SantaLand Diaries,” a field report on what it’s like to be down and “out” and an elf in the employ of Macy’s Herald Square. It’s also a perfect ready-made for a sensibility such as the author’s, a sensibility that leads him to write, after a harrowing session of cash-register training, that “the term Void has gained prominence as the filthiest four-letter word in my vocabulary.”

If the kids (and not a few adults) Sedaris had to escort to Santa’s knee represented an uphill battle against the forces of forced merriment (“I prefer being frank with children. I’m more likely to say, ‘You must be exhausted,’ or ‘I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of yours.’”), the camp quality of “SantaLand” is positively charming compared to the dark descent in the fictional pieces that follow.

In “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” a dementedly optimistic wife and mother unwittingly confesses to running her infant grandson through the washing machine, and in “Dinah, the Christmas Whore,” a thrilled, middle-class family opens its arms to a prostitute rescued from her abusive pimp. “Like a heroin addict or a mass murderer,” the teenage narrator observes, “a prostitute was, to me, more exotic than any celebrity could ever hope to be.” (Thrill your own family by introducing this story as a yuletide treat and you bring them to a fresh understanding of the phrase “Ho, ho, ho.”)

But these are pieces fans of the author already know. What of the work published here for the first time? “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol” parodies a pompous theatre critic skewering the holiday plays in his small town’s schools: at Sacred Heart Elementary, where little Shannon Burke in the role of Mary “barely manages to pass herself off as a virgin”; at Scottsfield Elementary, where the chafing thighs of an “11-year-old porker” playing Santa could be heard all the way to the North Pole; and where “the sadists at Jane Snow-Hernandez Middle School have taken up their burning pokers in an attempt to prod A Christmas Carol into some form of submission.”

Some form of submission, in “Based Upon a True Story,” is precisely what executive producer Jim Timothy from California hopes to achieve in his mock-sermon before a congregation of Pentacostals in Jasper’s Breath, Kentucky. Seems one member of the church, a year ago Christmas, saved her 5-year-old from kidney failure with nothing more than a rusty penknife, a sewing kit, and the gift of one of her own kidneys. To the question of how such surgery was successfully performed, the woman’s sole answer is, “I done it with the help of the Lord,” and she doesn’t feel any need, with help from Hollywood, to capitalize on it. The child was subsequently run over by a truck, but the producer’s on hand to buy off, if not threaten, the mother and the congregation if he doesn’t get some consent for his planned miniseries. For the churchgoers not to go after the big bucks is, in the producer’s words, “an act that borders on madness.”

That border is crossed (and another kidney’s lost) in the closing chapter of Holidays on Ice, “Christmas Means Giving.” In a gruesome game of oneupsmanship with the Cottinghams next door, a couple hand over their money, their home, even their twin sons in well-publicized and status-seeking acts of charity. In the story’s uplifting ending, the husband, out of “medical generosity,” donates his eyes, a lung, one kidney, and “several important veins surrounding [his] heart”; “having an unnatural attachment to her internal organs,” Beth, the wife, merely surrenders her scalp, teeth, right leg, and both breasts. Even these sacrifices can’t beat out the wily Cottinghams, however. In a last, grand gesture of true Christmas giving, the Cottinghams give with their lives.

David Sedaris must have the soul of a true believer to go to such savage lengths, but what’s the point of turning to fiction to express his disenchantment with what’s become of the holidays? The manager of SantaLand who screamed at a customer “to get out of my sight before I do something we both regret” is all the eyewitness material this satirist should ever need.

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